Oscar Munoz as a Customer-Focused Leadership

Customer-Focused Leadership Advice from United Airlines’ Former CEO


With its many changes and outside forces, the airline industry is challenging for customer experience. But Oscar Munoz, former CEO of United Airlines, believes it also provides an amazing opportunity to focus on individual customers and remember that even in stressful times and busy travel days, customers are humans and central to everything the business does. 

When Oscar first stepped into his role as CEO of United Airlines, he prioritized developing the shared purpose, or the mission, vision, and values. Over a year, he interviewed thousands of employees about what made United different and why they worked there. From their insights, United Airlines created the shared purpose of connecting people and uniting the world. And because employees were involved in creating that shared purpose, they have buy-in and are more engaged.

But talking to people involves more than just the employees. Oscar says talking to customers is a crucial responsibility of any leader, especially the CEO.

He said, “First and foremost, you actually have to believe and understand genuinely that your customer is important to you. And you really do want to understand their point of view. 

In a world with so much information, it can be easy for leaders to listen to someone tell them what customers want and follow blindly. But he says leaders must go to the source and dig deeper to check the data. 

When Oscar took over a company in disarray, he had to decide what to fix first. His decision came from sitting with customers as they flew and getting their input. On every flight he took, Oscar came prepared with information passengers had provided at booking, as well as a simple system of the history of the passenger’s previous flights or surveys with United coded as green, yellow, or red. That information let him know immediately if the passenger was generally happy or unhappy with United’s service.

Armed with information, Oscar would then introduce himself to neighboring passengers, thank them for flying, and use the flight to get to know them, follow up on their previous experiences, and ask what could be improved.

People were blown away that the CEO would engage in a friendly conversation. And the fact that Oscar knew about each passenger’s specific flights and was willing to talk about United’s missteps and areas for improvement built trust and showcased vulnerability. From those conversations, Oscar gained incredible insights and suggestions from customers.

Oscar believes there’s a level of involvement and engagement leaders have to exhibit to become a truly customer-centric business. And he believes those conversations with customers far and away set the tone.


Blake Morgan is a customer experience futurist and the bestselling author of The Customer of the Future. For regular updates on customer experience, sign up for her weekly newsletter here.

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